Dear Friends,

I've had three lovely holidays recently: a week with my father in Wales, a few days on my own in London and, this last week, a sort-of-holiday at home (though catching up with church events!), sharing the Manse with two families I've known for a long time. The house has been full to the gunnels, with every bedroom in continual use, not to mention every bathroom. And it's this last week, shared with three adults and two boys (one teenage, one nearly so) that has enabled me to reflect a bit on the mysteries of family life.

When we're little, we assume every family is like ours. That's what the word family means: our set-up at home. Then, when we go to school and the world widens a bit, we see that not every family works the same way. That can become painfully obvious when two families play a game together and discover that not all the same rules are observed! Some of the habits of other families will come across as weird or downright idiotic. But the experience of living differently can introduce more possibilities into our own lives.

When I first visited my French penfriend, the language wasn't the worst difference. The children - a girl and two boys - were apt to argue fiercely at the drop of a hat. Then the parents would shout at them to

keep the noise down, for Pete's* sake! For someone from an introvert family, it was unnerving. But five minutes later, people had got the gripe off their chests and all would be peace.

Visiting my German penfriend was even more interesting, because I stayed longer and became part of the family: one of four children. Although as the foreign guest I had bargaining power, things were no longer arranged solely with my wishes in mind. I had to share the back seat of the car! And so I began to realise that my place wasn't always at the centre of the universe.

Watching my godson and my teenage guest this last week competing for prime position within the Manse household has been another opportunity to reflect on family dynamics. Each of them has moments of being convinced that the other is being favoured, though in fact the two mothers operate an impressive no-favourites policy. Each has moments of blurting out: 'Everyone has to do what I want to do!' And of course, as one of the adults commented, we don't necessarily grow out of that conviction: we just get more indirect in our methods of persuasion.

Christian congregations often describe themselves as families. Depending upon your own experience of family, that can be good or bad news, but either way it's possible to see family dynamics at work within a church. Some who have stayed in one congregation their whole lives long may find it hard to consider change: surely God must prefer our ways? Those who know the responsibilities of leadership may find it strange to allow space for others to do things differently. And most of us, deep down, would still like things to be done the way we want.

Yet the common factor in my foreign visits was the welcome I received, the feeling that, though my culture and language were different, I still had a valued place within the household. And the same should be true of God's household, the church. Different denominations, different congregations will do things in their own way, and that makes sense: though there is no perfect church (as there is no perfect family), people will generally choose to settle in a congregation whose convictions match their own. But in the end, it's Christ, the head of the household, who unites us all.

Sarah Hall
* Pierre, of course